What Is Preached

I’m not sure how I stumbled across this article, but I found it fascinating.  It is a collection of various African pastors’ perspectives on restitution as part of the Christian life.  I find it interesting because I’m not convinced that restitution – with the emphasis and demand placed on it by these men – truly is Biblical.  Secondarily I find it fascinating because it isn’t something that you hear too often in American Christian circles.  Finally, it’s interesting to me because of working with addicts in recovery and the fact that in 12 Step programs, Step Nine specifically has the person work towards restitution.

While each of the pastors in the article insist that restitution is a Biblical mandate and evidence of the Christian life, very few of them actually cite Biblical support for this.  The one passage that is quoted by a few is that of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10.  Zacchaeus is a tax collector, meaning that he paid the Roman government for the right to collect taxes in a certain area.  He was required to collect a certain amount to remit to Rome, but he was free to collect more than the required amount in order to pay himself.  Tax collectors were hated as collaborators with Rome and robbers of their own people.  When Jesus comes to Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus has a change of heart, vowing to repay anyone he has defrauded four times what he cheated them out of, in addition with giving half of his belongings to the poor.

It’s a beautiful transformation.  It’s interesting that these pastors only talk about the restitution part, and not about giving half our wealth to the poor.  That seems like a rather curious division of emphasis, particularly when Luke nowhere tells us that Jesus demanded this of Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus’ generous promise is a reflection of the change of his heart, not a matter of fulfilling some specific commandment of restitution.  Also, if you’re going to use this as your supporting passage, why preach restitution in a limited way?  Why not preach that restitution must be four-fold?  Probably because that is an excessive directive.  What it points to is the magnitude of Zacchaeus’ response to the Son of God, not a legalistic mandate for restitution.

Certainly I don’t hear restitution emphasized in American Christian circles.  Grace here seems to mainly emphasize the forgiveness of sins and the fresh start we receive in Christ – all true! – without ever mentioning an expectation of restitution.  I wonder if this is because of a major theological difference from African Christianity, or reflective of the defensive posture of American Christianity.  If you’re clawing and scrambling for members, you aren’t going to push them too hard for fear that they’ll leave.

Working with addicts I try to stress the nature of forgiveness as opposed to restitution.  Restitution can have the effect of putting us back in control of things.  If I’ve done something wrong to somebody and then make restitution to them, it can allow me to expect that they must forgive me.  It puts me in command of the nature of the relationship, emphasizing what I’ve done to fix it more than what I did to break it in the first place.

Forgiveness is a gift, now something that we merit.  Some things can’t be fixed, and that doesn’t allow me to place the blame back on the other person.  What is emphasized in the Zacchaeus account is not Zacchaeus, but Jesus, who announces that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, meaning Jesus has come to his house and Zacchaeus has welcomed him and been changed in that encounter.  Zacchaeus was lost in his sinfulness, but now has repented, and recognizes that God has found him.

While I believe that restitution is important when possible, I don’t believe that it is Biblically-mandated via the Zacchaeus text.  Thoughts?

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